In Seattle, last week, I looked across the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Olive Way, into McGraw Square and towards the Westin Hotel, noting a Seattle urbanism trifecta — the Lake Union Streetcar, the skillet food truck and one building of Amazon’s new headquarters complex under construction. What’s not to like about that view?
Well, one thing for sure. I saw a ghost, of a missing building from a boyhood memory — something that Amazon might have retrofitted, today, if it were still there for the taking.
Gone from this layered, contemporary scene was something significant to the history of Seattle, the Orpheum Theater, demolished in 1967, once the largest theater in the Pacific Northwest, and the temporary home of the Seattle Symphony. Begun as a vaudeville house, the design, by theater architect Marcus Priteca also featured street-level retail, and offices — a reminder that mixed-use development is nothing new.
I specifically remember my last trip to the Orpheum, to view the Batman movie from the original television show; notable because local actor Adam West portrayed Bruce Wayne as the winged avenger.
But this is not a tale of Batman over streetcars. Nor is this an essay about the retention of historic theaters for the preservationist’s cause. Rather, this is a manifesto about the role of purposeful observation and sensation in urban environments, and acknowledgement of the undercurrents and overlaps that form cities today.
In capturing the photograph above, as an acknowledged urbanist, perhaps I should revel in the streetcar and food truck scene, with an expanded McGraw Square allowing greater pedestrian use. Instead, I hold that scene in perspective, because I’m old enough to recall what was there before.
I’m also an inductive, first person urbanist, always looking for context in what I see. Amid urban change, I see ghosts of bygone images, wondering, ironically, about their unrealized role in today’s vitality. This approach, allowing for and explaining the stories behind our redeveloping cities, should not be viewed as antiquarian, academic or obstructionist. For example, similar memories of the native American trail that traveled from Elliot Bay to Seattle’s Lake Union, have spurred the Seattle Parks Foundation-led “Lake2Bay” initiative, which endeavors to create a multifaceted urban innovation corridor.
I’d like to think urban observation and collective urban memory are as important to the authenticity of urban change today as the oral histories among indigenous people who pass on cultural traditions from one generation to the next.